11 The Struggle Continues: Women of Color Faculty and Institutional Barriers

By Lourdes Torres, DePaul University

Illustration of author Lourdes Torres holding a piece of paper, looking up, as if toward an audience or classroom
Lourdes Torres by Nicole Carter

It is no secret that the academy continues to be a bastion of white male supremacy. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2017, 76% of all faculty in institutions of higher education were white (41% males, 35% female). People of color (Asian, Blacks, Latinxs, Native Americans) accounted for the other 24%.

White women and women of color are denied tenure at much higher rates than white males. At my institution, DePaul University, this problem came to a head several years ago when, from 2008 to 2010, almost all of the faculty denied tenure were white women and women of color.  Following contentious attempts at negotiation, a number of these women sued the university for sexual and racial discrimination (Isaacs 2011).

And while men and women of color are both severely underrepresented in higher education, given the compounded burdens of misogyny and racism, this article focuses primarily on factors that hinder the success of women of color across all fields, while acknowledging that underrepresentation is even more alarming in the sciences and engineering (Ginther and Kahn 2012).

The data is incontrovertible. Women of color are more likely to be denied tenure than others. A recent study of tenure and promotion outcomes at four large, land grant institutions, confirms that women in general are more likely to leave their jobs before achieving tenure and women of color are less likely to be promoted (Durodoye Jr. et. al. 2019).

Two recent high-profile cases serve as reminders that this is a persistent problem even at a time when “diversity” is touted as essential for universities particularly as the demography of the United States shifts. Lorgia Garcia Peña’s tenure denial at Harvard earlier this year drew the condemnation of hundreds of students and scholars due to her cutting-edge record in research, teaching, and service. The Executive Committee of the National Women’s Studies Association wrote a letter protesting this unfair decision and asking for a reconsideration of her file, as did numerous other scholarly associations. Garcia-Peña is an Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and a leading scholar of interdisciplinary research. She won multiple awards for her book, Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction, including the NWSA’s prestigious Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize, awarded for her significant contribution to women of color/transnational scholarship.

Likewise, this year, at the University of Colorado Boulder, students and faculty continued to protest the tenure denial of Lupita Montoya, a popular Latina engineering professor, who has been fighting this decision for several years and requesting a review of her tenure case. This Stanford graduate, who was the first Latina to be hired as faculty in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Colorado, was supported for tenure by her department but not by the higher administration. She recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that she has been subjected to racial and gender discrimination.

In these cases, and many others, the research women of color undertake is deemed to be inadequate or insufficient. Montoya stated that administrators in the engineering college determined that her work and publications on public health qualified as service rather than research. Montoya’s research focused on air quality in low-income communities that suffer chronic health issues from the toxins in the air they breathe. As a first-generation scholar, her research was quite consciously focused on work that made a difference in the lives of marginalized communities often ignored in much scholarship and research.

Similarly, Namita Goswami, who was hired to teach feminist theory and critical race theory by the philosophy department at DePaul University was later found by some of her colleagues to be untenurable because her work was deemed to be insufficiently grounded in philosophy. This decision was reached despite a stellar research record and significant teaching awards.

Women of color faculty are challenged to establish their competence and legitimacy in an academic context where their work is often undervalued and misunderstood, but they confront other obstacles as well.

The issues faced by all women, including the responsibilities of childbearing and childcare, lack of networks, and lack of mentors, are exacerbated by systematic racism endemic to all institutions of higher educations. These factors impact the lower tenure and promotion rates for women of color and help explain why women of color often leave academic positions.

Quite often faculty of color take on invisible labor. This means they formally and informally work with students of color who show up at their doors because they seek mentors who look like them and understand where they are coming from. Many faculty of color, especially women, feel that it is their responsibility to mentor students of color, especially in predominantly white institutions where students of color may be challenged to find people to whom they can relate. Women faculty of color know that such mentoring can mean the world of difference to students of color and they are committed to serving them.

Another aspect of this invisible labor is that women of color are often invited to serve on all types of university committees, sometimes as window dressing and tokens, since committee chairs feel pressure to show diversity on their committees. However, universities rarely understand the toll that such numerous demands may have on the productivity and mental health of women faculty of color. Too often this “diversity work” is unseen or, at best undervalued, especially when it comes to faculty evaluation and tenure. Or worse yet, said work takes time away from research required for a competitive tenure file, thus women of color are ultimately punished for this sort of work to which they often cannot say no.

The burdens women of color face in academia, doing their best to meet and often exceed tenure requirements as they also struggle to survive in a context of white supremacy, macro and micro aggressions, sexism, and classism, can be overwhelming. It is imperative that all of us do our part to acknowledge and fight to dismantle the racist and misogynist structural barriers which continue to impede women of color faculty. These issues need to be addressed at every level of the university particularly in terms of “color blind” and “gender blind” policies and procedures governing the tenure and promotion practices at most institutions.

A good place to start is to educate ourselves about the intersectional factors hampering the success of women of color. Books like Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012/2020), Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability, and Resistance (2018/2020), and Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (2016) collect the narratives of women of color faculty and make clear the often traumatic experiences they continue to endure in universities across the US. Patricia A. Matthew, editor of Written/Unwritten, explains that she decided to undertake the project of her book when four women of color were denied tenure in one year at  her institution, the University of Michigan, in 2007.  She invited women across the country to write about their experiences. She notes in the introduction to her book,

…what I’ve found is that there are codes and habits that faculty of color often don’t know about because those unwritten practices are so subtle as to seem unimportant until something goes wrong, and then the assumption is that the person of color is incompetent, lazy, or lying. In my case, the assumption was that I was dishonest or disorganized, though neither of those things is true. The fact that I am a Black woman played some role in that tangled-up process, and I still see the same patterns that were in play in my reappointment and tenure reviews whenever I am assessed. More important, I now know that those patterns are at work all over the country. It’s not just me. It’s not just us. This is happening everywhere.

Dismantling the misogynistic and white supremacist foundations of higher education requires that we all become educated, engaged, and committed to challenging oppressive structures wherever we encounter them.

Works cited:

Durodoye Jr., Raifu, Marcia Gumpertz, Alyson Wilson, Emily Griffith, and Seher Ahmad. 2019. “Tenure and Promotion Outcomes at Four Large Land Grant Universities: Examining the Role of Gender, Race, and Academic Discipline,” in Research in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-019-09573-9. [Accessed: 4/30/2020]

Executive Committee, NWSA. 2019, December 20. “NWSA Statement in Support of Dr. Lorgia García Peña.” https://www.nwsa.org/news/news.asp?id=483323. [Accessed: 4/30/2020]

Ginther, Donna K. and Shulamit Kahn. 2012. “Education and Academic Career Outcomes for Women of Color in Science and Engineering.” Unpublished paper. http://www.people.ku.edu/~dginther/Ginther_Kahn_WomenofColor.pdf. [Accessed: 4/30/2020]

Isaacs, Deanna. 2011, April 7. “More tenure troubles at DePaul,” in ЯEADER, Columns & Opinions section. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/depaul-tenure-problems/ Content?oid=3553432. [Accessed: 4/30/2020]

Lysik, Tory. 2020, February 14. “CU Boulder students protest demotion of Latina faculty member,” in CU Independent. https://cuindependent.com/2020/02/14/cu-boulder-protest -latina-professor-demotion/. [Accessed: 4/30/2020]

Matthew, Patricia. A., ed. 2016. Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press Books.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 2017. “Fast Facts: Race/ethnicity of college faculty.” https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61. [Accessed: 4/30/2020]

Whitaker, Manya and Eric Anthony Grollman, eds. 2020 [2018]. Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability, and Resistance. New York, NY: Routledge.

y Muhs, Gabriella Gutiérrez, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris, eds. 2020 [2012]. Presumed Incompetent II: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.